‘Biased’ students give BME academics lower NSS scores, says study

University of Reading research finds link between undergraduate satisfaction and ethnicity of lecturers

January 21, 2016
Student asking question during class
Source: Alamy
Think twice: NSS data are often used to monitor the performance of departments

Students who are taught by black or ethnic minority academics are less likely to rate their courses positively in the National Student Survey, according to a study.

An analysis of the 2014 results found that the ethnicity of lecturers was one of the most significant influencers on the overall satisfaction of UK undergraduates; an effect that researchers at the University of Reading attribute to “unconscious bias” on the part of respondents.

Henley Business School’s Adrian Bell and Chris Brooks, chair in the history of finance and professor of finance respectively, compared NSS results with staffing data held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and found that, for every 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of academic staff in a department who said that they were white, there was a 0.06 percentage point increase in the proportion of its students who said that they were satisfied.

Although this sounds like a small shift, the only factor that had a more significant effect when all other variables were held equal was the departmental response rate to the survey.

Many UK universities use NSS results to monitor the performance of academic departments but Professor Bell, head of Reading’s International Capital Market Association Centre, questioned whether they could “really trust” the data in light of these findings.

“We have to be aware that there is a bias in the NSS, and I don’t think we can do anything about that, but we need to be aware that, if we are building a diverse workforce, our results may go down as a result," he said.

“We have to accept that and be happy with that.”

The Reading study is the first of its kind in the UK but follows studies in the US that found that ethnic minority lecturers were rated far more harshly by students on the Rate My Professors website.

Out of 160 institutions included in the latest NSS, the overall satisfaction scores of all but 11 are bunched tightly between 92 per cent and 78 per cent, so the ethnic mix of staff could sway both departmental scores and institutional league table positions.

Most other recorded staff characteristics such as gender and age, and whether a lecturer holds a teaching qualification, did not have a statistically significant effect on student satisfaction.

The total number of staff in a department, their average length of service, and the proportion of them holding doctorates were found to have a beneficial impact.

The study also considered institution-wide effects, and found further evidence to suggest that the UK’s most prestigious universities underperform in the NSS.

If all other variables including research excellence framework performance and graduate prospects are equal, simply attending a university that is in the research-intensive Russell Group makes students between 1 per cent and 2.2 per cent less satisfied compared with other pre-92 universities.

Post-92 institutions underperformed by between 1.2 per cent and 1.9 per cent compared with older universities, suggesting that the “squeezed middle” – typically campus-based research universities – do best at satisfying students.



Print headline: Unconscious bias ‘at work in NSS’

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Reader's comments (5)

Not clear...'for every 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of academic staff in a department who said that they were white, there was a 0.06 percentage point increase in the proportion of its students who said that they were satisfied.' Surely that would suggest the opposite conclusion to this headline?
Oops misread
Well yes and I'm afraid this will problem will be compounded by TEF. "Students" are not a homogeneous bunch and some are likely to express their racist, sexist and homophobic biases (conscious as well as unconscious) when 'assessing' their teachers. In my place quite a lot complain about the 'foreign accents' of international colleagues in answer to the NSS question: "are staff good at explaining things". There's also been very bad behavior (by a small group of young male students) in relation to the teaching content used by some female colleagues (e.g. "let's talk about the gender pay gap, diversity in the workplace etc). Their behaviour was brought to the attention of senior management but nothing was done about them because the group concerned were third years, seen as the opinion makers in their cohort, and therefore had to be kept sweet so that the department's NSS score wasn't impacted. Welcome to the 21st century university ...
This is a classic double whammy for BAME staff, no influence and all the blame. This article/research appears to be linking poor performance in the NSS to the proportion of BAME academics in an institution. Unconscious bias or not the implication for BAME staff could be serious. However we all know that a correlation does not mean a cause. What we do know is that BAME staff in these institutions are likely to be in junior positions with little influence on the factors which determine the student experience. A better explanation of the results could be that we are more likely to find higher numbers of BAME academics in institutions with a high proportion of BAME students. Given the poor outcomes for BAME students including the attainment gap, poor retention and progression, it is not surprising that these students report lower satisfaction levels. Again even in these institutions BAME academics are not in the positions to make the changes needed.
"A better explanation..." my thoughts exactly. I'd imagine that universities with increasing diversity among students will reasonably work to mirror that advantage among staff. And worse, as you suggested, since we are indeed so new in this space, we're less likely to be IN the roles to MAKE the needed changes. In case it's not already clear, by 'we' I mean BAME staff, which raises an additional concern: Won't we address this institutionally rather than wait for those directly concerned to raise complaints!?!